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Loath to let go

August 30, 2013

THE Punjab Local Government Act 2013 (Act XVIII of 2013) was recently passed by the provincial legislature. The law provides, among other things, for the constitution of district education and health authorities.

The law was supposed to devolve the two functions to the local government. But, on reading the provisions of the act, it seems the government has opted to merely shift the functions of health and education to these ‘authorities’ while keeping tight control over them from the provincial capital and not trusting local governments or bodies with oversight and responsibility.

Section 17 of the act states “the government shall, by notification in the official gazette, separately establish and determine the composition of the district education authority…” and ‘government’ is defined as the provincial government.

The members of the authority will either be indirectly elected members from the local government or technocrats nominated by the provincial government. “The technocrat members of an authority shall have expertise in the relevant field and shall be appointed by the government,” it reads.

In addition: “The government shall appoint the chairman and the vice chairman of an authority and they shall serve during the pleasure of the government”.

Though the board might have a nominal majority of indirectly elected local representatives, since the chairman and vice chairman are to be appointed by the province and are answerable to the province — and not to the nazim or mayor or even the local populace — the locus of control will be with the provincial education department or the chief minister’s office.

It will depend on who the appointing authority is at the provincial level and who is nominated to look after day-to-day dealing with the authority.

The power of the province becomes stronger since it will also control the appointments of the ‘technocrat’ members. The nazim or mayor will have some local representatives on the board as members of these authorities. But given that boards, especially those of not-for-profit entities, are usually not very involved in day-to-day affairs, do not have ready access to information and have little control over the chairman or vice chairman, the nazim’s control of the local government, its representatives and the local populace will be weak.

The provincial government is to appoint the chief executive officer of the authority: “The government shall, through open competition, appoint the chief executive officer of an authority on such terms and conditions as may be prescribed… .”

Again, the incentives and powers of the CEO are going to be determined by the province and he or she is going to look to the province for continuing in office. Local influence on the CEO could be rather limited.

Limiting local influence might not be a bad strategy in education. Current research shows that there is too much political interference in teacher recruitment, deployment, posting and transfer. One way to limit that is by keeping those responsible for local education answerable to the province. But this could have been achieved by keeping specific functions of the education department, where there is more interference or where more interference is feared, under the province’s control.

The same objective could also have been achieved by allowing the local population far more transparent access to the authority and its functioning. The extra scrutiny of all processes could also have created some check and accountability mechanisms.

But in keeping the authority answerable to the provincial bureaucracy and political set-up, the intention was not just to make it immune to local influence. Nothing is mentioned about the teachers, their recruitment, training, deployment, transfer and posting in the list of functions specified for the district education authority.

The only mention about teachers is that the authority has to “ensure teaching standards”. So, one presumes all the functions that are mentioned here regarding teacher recruitment and deployment, will stay with the province. Keeping that in mind, clearly the intention of having appointment and firing powers over the chairperson/vice chairperson and CEO have to do with issues of exercising control.

The authorities have been given important powers regarding the possibilities of going into contracts with the private sector and/or starting private-public partnerships. They have also been given the current mandate of the districts: “A district authority shall (a) establish, manage, and supervise the primary, elementary, secondary and higher secondary schools, adult literacy and non-formal basic education, special education institutions of the government in the district….”

Development planning and activities regarding schools and education, have also been given to the authority. The last is a change. Currently most of the development activity, though being fed from districts, was carried out at the provincial level. The district education staff is used to managing schools but they have not been doing development planning and not managing its execution. This capacity to do so will need to be built up in the authority.

The sections on the district education authority do not mention how matters are going to be organised below the district level. Which functions will be located at the school level, the sub-tehsil, tehsil and the district level? Will schools get more autonomy? Will school councils get any autonomy? Will tehsils and sub-tehsils be involved in the planning process?

These things need to be clarified. At the moment it seems that the province is not planning to change any of these structures, and is just thinking of replacing the top, executive district officer for education, with the CEO of the authority and have the authority controlled from Lahore. Does the province want devolution below its own level? Given what is being proposed for health and education in Punjab’s new bill, it does not seem so. The authorities, as they have been proposed, seem to be an attempt to run education and health like vertical programmes.

The writer is senior adviser, Pakistan, at Open Society Foundations, associate professor of economics, LUMS, and a visiting fellow at IDEAS, Lahore.